Giving up? Or going deep? The opportunity of Lent

Our lives are lived in a regular cycle of seasons. The heat of summer gives way to the coolness of autumn, then to the cold of winter, before the warmth of spring rejuvenates and refreshes, and we find ourselves back in the baking heat of summer, once more.

And so, too, does the Christian year move between seasons, following an ancient pattern which was shaped to provide a focus on the central story of our faith—the story of Jesus Christ. Each December, in the season of Advent, we prepare to celebrate his birth. That is the celebrated in the season of Christmas (which largely been taken over by commercial interests) and the ensuing season of Epiphany.

In the northern hemisphere, where this cycle originated, the days at this time of year start to lengthen, and that process gave the name of the next season: Lent. It comes from the Old English word lencten, which was the old way that the season of spring was named.

Lent has been celebrated for at least 1500 years. It is typically seen as a time of self-examination and repentance, a hard season which is characterised by discipline and sacrifice, a time for giving up, a period of penitence and abstinence.

What are you giving up for Lent this year? If you have not yet decided, the pressure is on. What are you giving up?

More often, now, Lent presented as a time of “preparation” for Easter, celebrating the death and resurrection of Jesus. Then follows Pentecost, a longer season focussed on growth, lasting almost half of the year, before Advent comes around again.

This ancient pattern offers us an annual opportunity to pause, reflect, and recommit our lives of discipleship and service. For myself, I do not see this as an archaic custom which we can readily abandon; rather, I view Lent as a time for regrouping and rebuilding my walk of faith. In the southern hemisphere, where I live, the days are not lengthening (in fact, the daylight hours are becoming shorter)—but the opportunity to pause, reflect, and recommit, is still valid.

Each year, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. This year, that will fall on 26 February. It will run until Good Friday, which this year is on 10 April, and lead into the celebrations of Easter Sunday, on 12 April.

Technically, there are 40 days in Lent, but it actually runs for 46 full days. The six Sundays during the weeks of Lent don’t actually count as part of Lent, as they remain The Lord’s Day, when the resurrection is celebrated. The other 40 days are more sombre, more reflective.

(So, technically, you can indulge to your heart’s content on those Sundays, but maintain your Lenten discipline on the other days of the week. Six days of stringent abstinence, one day of unfettered indulgence, and repeat the pattern six times. That’s the way that Lent rolls, it would seem!)

How will you spend this season of Lent? Many of the regular activities of life will still need to be attended to: shopping, cleaning, working, travelling, preparing meals, gathering with family, visiting friends, reading, gardening, listening to music … and a host of other things that fill the regular pattern of our lives, day by day, week by week. We won’t, or can’t, give up these aspects of life.

So the challenge that sits before us at this time of the year, is this: how, and when, will I find time to dedicate to nurturing my spiritual life, to strengthening my life of discipleship? Instead of giving something up, could we think about Lent as a time for going deep? That is the opportunity, and the challenge, that Lent presents.

In the midst of all the regular activities, a special focus on going deep into our spiritual life and strengthening our discipleship would be beneficial to each of us. To nurture our spiritual lives, my church (along with many others) make use of the Revised Common Lectionary—a modern version of an ancient church practice, to read systematically and listen carefully to the range of scripture passages that can nourish us in our walk of faith.

The lectionary provides four scripture passages each Sunday, drawn from the Old Testament, the Psalms, the Epistles and the Gospels. And each year, a particular Gospel is in focus (this year, it is the Gospel of Matthew)—although during Lent, the Gospel passages are most often drawn from the Gospel of John. The schedule of passages offered for Lent 2020 can be seen at

https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu//lections.php?year=A&season=Lent

There is a wonderful website called The Text This Week, which collates links to an abundance of resources relating to the seasons of the church year, and the readings set in the Revised Common Lectionary each week.

The page for Lent 2020 is at http://www.textweek.com/lent.htm

And for personal use in reading a daily passage of scripture and reflecting on what it offers to us in terms of our faith, I can recommend an Australian resource (with which I have had a connection over four decades, and to which I regularly contribute), called With Love to the World.

This is a daily devotional guide that provides a reflection on a Bible passage for each day of the year, with questions for discussion, guidance for prayer, and suggestions for hymns and songs to sing. With Love to the World is published four times a year.

You can read about it at http://www.withlovetotheworld.org.au/

Lent is an ancient practice which can be utterly relevant in the modern world. In this period of 40 days, or six weeks, leading up to Easter, we have the opportunity to take time to reflect seriously on our faith, to deepen our understanding and strengthen our discipleship.

This is the world we live in, this is the Gospel we believe in

This month I have started fulltime into a regional ministry role with the Canberra Region Presbytery of the Uniting Church in Australia. The Presbytery includes Congregations, Faith Communities, and Uniting Agencies across the ACT and in coastal and rural areas in the southeast of NSW.

I am joined in another fulltime regional ministry role by Andrew Smith, a colleague minister in the Uniting Church, and we work with administrative support staff, as well as in a collegial relationship with the Saltbush Project of our church, serving rural and remote Congregations, and Uniting, building community connections in locations across the region.

My role is described as Presbytery Minister Wellbeing, and I will be working with Ministers and Pastors, Congregations and Faith Communities, to guide them in their development and growth and support their leadership in their communities. I am charged to provide pastoral care, leadership development, and other training. There is a significant administrative component in the position. Despite this (or because of this?), I am looking forward to what this role will set before me.

Andrew has been called to serve as Presbytery Minister Congregation Futures, working with Congregations and Faith Communities, Pastors and Ministers, to empower their spiritual life, develop missional capacity, strengthen missional leadership, and build strong missional networks across the region. We are already working closely, and look forward to a constructive collaboration over the time ahead.

In the Service of Induction on 21 February 2020, we were privileged to have the President of the National Assembly, Dr Deidre Palmer, preach a thoughtful and stirring sermon. She focussed on the call to serve embedded in Luke 4:16-30 and the prayer of hope expressed in Psalm 13. What follows are the words that I offered in response at this service.

*********

Co-Chairpersons, President, colleagues and friends, I thank you for your welcome. I am pleased to be in Canberra, here because Elizabeth was called by God through the church, to the right place at the right time, to be minister of the Tuggeranong Congregation. We are very content to be here. The cats are contented, and after a year in our house, the veggies are growing abundantly.

Maisie, Felix, and Fearghal, settled into life in Canberra

I am grateful for the support and encouragement that I have received as I have undertaken the slow and extended process, over the last year, of working my way into this role of Wellbeing within your Presbytery.

I come with a commitment to support and serve the leadership of our 29 congregations, both lay and ordained; to equip and encourage the whole people of God in order that together we might be faithful followers of Jesus; and to work to strengthen the mission and ministry that is undertaken by our congregations and faith communities.

In a world where a mother and her children can be incinerated by an act of savage fury, we need the Gospel of God, which invites us to value others deeply and to share with others in the depths of pain …

In a world where barriers are built and walls reinforced, where borders are patrolled and security is intensified, where fear and distrust leads us to keep at bay those who are perceived as different, foreign, strangers, we need to live out the Gospel of welcoming acceptance, so that we may no longer be strangers to one another …

In a world where stereotypes are promulgated and intolerance of difference and diversity in personal identity is growing, we need to reinforce that the Gospel in which we stand calls us to value diversity, love everyone, and work together to strengthen the common good in society …

In a world where land is taken, communities are neglected, the voices of Indigenous Peoples are silenced and their peoples and communities are marginalised, we need to live by our covenant commitment to honour and respect them, to listen and share with them, to seek a destiny together with the First Peoples of this continent and its islands …

In a world where vested interests cajole and threaten, pouring money into supporting ventures which continue to inflict damage on the environment and destroy ecosystems, we need the Gospel of renewal and reconciliation for the whole creation …

In a world where bushfires and cyclones wreak havoc, where droughts and floods destabilise, we need the Gospel of patient care and loving concern, looking to rebuild lives and strengthen community resilience, which all comes from the central command, that we are to love one another …

In a world where captives are tortured, prisoners are held unjustly, systems are corrupted, and injustice is contagious, we need the Gospel which calls us to set free the prisoner, enable the blind to see, and offer God’s gracious liberty as a sign of the year of the Lord’s favour …

This is the world we live in, and this is the Gospel we believe in. It invites us into wholeness, shalom, wellbeing.

The 29 Congregational units in this Presbytery cover 54 locations under the banner of the Uniting Church. Every Sunday, when people in our Presbytery gather together to worship, every weekday, when people gather in our buildings to eat and talk, to listen and learn, we demonstrate that we are committed to this Gospel, as the good news for all, that we seek to live it out to the fullest.

Our congregations and faith communities are the lifeblood of that Gospel in our region. Our pastors and ministers are the people who call and care, who proclaim and practice the good news for our world in each of those places, as we live out that Gospel.

Canberra Region Presbytery Ministers and Pastors with the Co-Chairs of Presbytery, on retreat in October 2019

I am looking forward to working with you all, to continue working with Amy and Janise in the Presbytery Office, and especially to work closely with Andrew as we offer resourcing and guidance as the ministers you have called to serve across this Presbytery, charged to support ministers and pastors as they offer their leadership, called to equip faith communities and congregations to be resilient, faithful and engaged with their local communities.

I am committed to working with you, alongside each of you, to seek the wellbeing of our church and to contribute to the common good in society. I look forward to the adventures that lie ahead, as together we serve the Gospel in the world through our church.

*****

The Canberra Region Presbytery website is at https://canberra.uca.org.au/About-Us

A pastoral letter that I wrote as I started into the role in early February is at https://canberra.uca.org.au/presbytery-news/a-pastoral-letter-from-rev-dr-john-squires/

An earlier pastoral letter from Presbytery officers, sent during the height of the bushfire crisis, can be read at https://canberra.uca.org.au/presbytery-news/a-pastoral-message-for-the-bushfire-crisis/

The Presbytery newsletter for Summer 2019-2020, with the theme celebrating transitions, can be read at https://canberra.uca.org.au/presbytery-news/viewpoint-summer-2019/

Reflecting on faith amidst the firestorms

We have been surrounded by images of fire, for some weeks now. The last few weeks have been challenging, confronting us with terrible images of devastated landscapes, burnt native animals and birds, destroyed homes, and the bodies of farm stock unable to escape the fire, alongside of pictures and videos of the still-raging flames of fire, leaping high into air, travelling rapidly across the landscape.

We have watched aghast as our screens take us right into the heart of the firestorm, standing with firefighters in the face of unbeatable odds. And we have breathed the air that is saturated with smoke from the fires, smoke that causes us to gasp, cough, and wheeze. It has been a challenging time. And fire has been the constant theme.

In this context, there is one short verse in the Psalm caught my attention, this week, as I read the lectionary passages and pondered what I would take as a focus for today. I wonder if you noticed the verse that jumped out to me, when we said the psalm together, earlier? “The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire” (Ps 29:7).

These fires that rage, these flames that burn … are they really a message from God, to us, a message of punishment? That is how such events have been seen by some—the bushfires now raging, the floods that swamped North Queensland last year, the five severe cyclones that hit Pacific Islands a few years back, the massive tsunami that ravaged Asian countries over a decade ago—each of these have been explained by some zealous preacher or another, as a sign of God’s punishment.

It was not too long ago that a prominent sports star gained publicity by suggesting that the fires early in the season were sent by God to punish us—punishing us for the many sins committed by people in Australia. Others have made claims that God is punishing us for the decisions made by our church in recent times.

And just a few days ago, a breakaway Baptist pastor in Arizona made the audacious claim that the fires are actually punishment from God because he was denied a visa to visit Australia. He said on Facebook that “maybe if Australia wasn’t banning and deporting preachers of the Gospel, they wouldn’t be under the judgement of God”. And, as you can see, he clearly linked this with the bushfires, using the map of blazes and a picture of one of the fires.

We must, of course, distance ourselves from this kind of simplistic and arrogant claim. Simplistic, because this preacher has been banned from over 20 other countries—and they are not ringed with fire at this time. So a simple cause and effect connection is far too simplistic.

And simplistic, also, because making an interpretation of a naturally-occurring event, and attributing that to the intentions of the deity, is far too easy to do. Our scientific knowledge helps us to have insights as to how events in nature—like fires, storms, cyclones, droughts, and so on—how these actually form and manifest within the natural order of things. Our scientific knowledge also helps us to appreciate how the way that human beings live makes a contribution—however small or significant you believe it may be—to these events of nature.

And such a claim is breathtakingly arrogant in its nature. How can any one of us human beings dare to claim that we know, absolutely and definitively, the intentions of God at any one point in time? And that we can unambiguously declare those intentions?—usually, it must be said, in the voice of an angry prophet, making a negative judgement on the morality of the people.

So I don’t want to go down this track. “The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire” (Ps 29:7) can’t be taken at face value, as a literal, simple explanation of the fires as expressions of divine punishment. Whilst ancient understandings may have made this kind of immediate connection between an event in nature and the intentions of God, we cannot make such a simple link. We need to reflect more deeply.

….

How do we make sense of these fires, when we gather, today, as people of faith? We have seen so many images of the fires. Some of us have been close to the fire front. We have all breathed the smoke generated by those fires. What do they mean?

Some of us have seen this kind of destruction at close quarters. Some have memories of the 2003 Canberra fires brought back to prominent attention. Some have been recently in areas that are now devastated, or have been caught in the early stages of the recent forefront activity.

Some have family members or good friends who have had to evacuate in the face of the fire. Some of us know people whose properties, animals, and houses have been impacted by the intensity of the blazes. We are all caught into a sense of anxiety and grief as the fires continue.

In the evacuation centres, chaplains from a number of different denominations have been present, offering comfort and support to people who have been forced to leave their homes in the face of the fires. A number of my colleagues have been there, for days on end, over recent times, in the midst of people in turmoil, helping them to go gently in the midst of the upheaval and anxiety.

(See https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/09/pastoral-letter-from-canberra-region-presbytery/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/06/what-are-the-churches-doing-during-the-bushfire-crisis/)

For us, at some distance from the fires, we too need to be gentle with each other. We need to hold each other in the comfort of friendship, offer supportive words, provide practical assistance, and sit with each other in the uncomfortable spaces of waiting, wondering, worrying. We need to make sure that we don’t expose ourselves, unnecessarily, to risks to our own health. These fires call us to care, deeply, lovingly.

And yet, there is a question that recurs in situations like I have just described—situations of need, of loss, of intense grief and despair. That is this simple question: where is God? The simple answer—God sent this to you, God is punishing you—does not satisfy. We need another take.

The Adelaide theologian, Dr Norman Habel, wrote a hymn reflecting on just this question, in the context of bushfires that occurred on Black Saturday in 2009. (It goes to the familiar tune of Amazing Grace.) It begins like this:

Amazing flames that scorch the sky, like hurricanes of fire,

Alive with eucalyptus oil are roaring higher and higher.

These swirling balls of oil ablaze that leap o’er trees at will,

Descend on fields and flock and homes, explode and burn and kill.

And then, he asks the question:

Where’s God in all this swirling ash? Where’s God in all this pain?

Awaiting somewhere in the sky to one day send some rain?

The answer comes in striking imagery, in confronting declaration:

The face of God is burnt and black; the hands of God are red!

The God we know in Jesus Christ is bleeding with the dead.

The answer which Norman Habel offers is this: God is here. God is right in the middle of all this mess. God is not remote. God is not the one pulling the strings, away up in heaven, ready to send rain when enough prayers have been sent up to him.

No: God is here, in our midst, incarnate, one with us, suffering alongside us. God is crying as the house burns, weeping as the birds and animals flee, sobbing as the stock die, grieving as the firefighters are overwhelmed and their truck is overturned. God is here, with us. Jesus Christ is bleeding with the dead, grieving with us, mourning with creation.

The last verse of the hymn, then, is this:

Christ, show us now your hands and feet, the burns across your side,

and how you suffer with the Earth, by fires crucified!

And this reminds me of the poem that I shared with you some months back, about how we encounter God, and where we encounter God. The poem by Lisa Jacobson expresses the clear notion that God is not up there in the heavens, as the priest might claim, but down here in the land, as the black fella would say. To find God, we need to look for God; but not look up, to the heavens; rather, look down, look at your feet, look past your feet, to the stones—hear them singing? and the rivers—feel them vibrating? And sense how the earth is yearning, groaning.

Stones singing and rivers vibrating; that twofold expression of the inner life of the earth is also the key that unlocks a different understanding of God—as a being not remote and removed from humans on earth, but as a being beside us, around us, underneath us, in the earth, in the stones, in the rivers, in our very being.

And this, of course, is rightly acknowledged in this poem, as the insight of black fellas—the centre of spirituality for the First Peoples of this ancient continent, the heart of life and spirit for the Ngunnawal people, the people who have cared for the land in this general region from time beyond what we can measure, and for the Ngambri and Ngarigo people more locally, and for the Wiradjuri to our west, and for the first peoples of every city and region across this continent. God is in the land, God is in amongst us.

This understanding of where we find God, how we enter the depths of spirituality, is set forth very clearly in a clause of the Revised Preamble to the Constitution of the Uniting Church, which clearly affirms:

So we have adopted an affirmation that when we hear the stones sing, when we feel the rivers vibrating, we are connecting in a new way, with God, who is here, and has long been here, in this land, the land which God created at the first.

This claim arises from a different way of thinking about God, pondering the claims of scripture and engaging us on a journey of reflection and prayer, exploration and discovery, at the edges of our faith. Both the Australian poem and indigenous Australian spirituality have taken hold of this insight, that God is in our midst, amongst us, within us.

That is the same claim that the Gospel writer makes, when he writes that the angel told Joseph that he was to name his child Emanuel—God with us (Matt 1). That is what that child, grown to be an adult, taught about the reign of God—that it was here, in our midst—the kingdom of God is within us (Luke 17).

That is what the ancient Hebrew psalmist affirmed, about the whole of creation—humans, animals, insects, birds, mountains and valleys, trees and forests—that when God created this whole creation, it was the spirit of God that was breathed into every living creature (Ps 104:30).

And the psalm we have read today affirms that God is active and at work in the creation. He is not an absentee, uninterested, disconnected God. God is active, over the oceans, in the desert, through the forests, in thunder and flames. God is here, with us.

And this, after all, is the story that we tell, and retell, each year, each Sunday: the story of God, come to us in the human being Jesus, friend of sinners and advocate for the outcast, Jesus arrested and condemned as a criminal, Jesus, despised, crucified, hanging on the cross. That is where God was to be found, most profoundly, most assuredly—in the very midst of our life.

And as Jesus suffers and dies, so God suffers, and feels the sharpness of the moment we call death. For that is where God is. Here, in our midst, amongst us.

Just as God is with us, in the midst of our lives, in the midst of this creation, present in the animals and humans, the ecosystems and great forests, so also God suffers with the earth, as part of the earth. So, for me, the psalm does, indeed, speak a truth—a confronting, challenging, disturbing truth.

For the fires we are experiencing now are the result of the way that human beings, collectively, have been living, not just this year, or for a few years, but for many years—for centuries. The clear observations of science are, that as we have industrialised our societies and pumped more CO2 into the atmosphere, we have developed an environment that is drier, and hotter; more vulnerable to firestorms and more liable to flooding; for the creation is groaning, it is out of order.

And in the processes of nature that are at work, that we have intensified and exacerbated, we see tragic results in the multiple fire fronts that have surged in recent weeks—just as the same instability in the earth’s system has generated more intense and more frequent cyclones, warmed the oceans and melted the edges of the polar caps, and other observable events around the world.

And in the midst of those cyclones, and meltings, and bleachings of coral, and eruptions of fire storms, God is communicating with us: the world cannot go on like this, the planet can not sustain our incessant disregard for its natural ways. So, yes, I think that the psalmist does speak truth. The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire.

God has not singled out a nation, or a people, or particular individuals for punishment. God, indeed, is not manipulating what occurs, intervening whenever and however God wills. God is in the systems, in the processes of our natural environment, and as the fires rage, God is indeed speaking to us through those flames of fire. The challenge, for us, is to pause … to listen … to understand … and to act in response.

Thanks to Dr Byron Smith for this prayer in response: https://www.commongrace.org.au/prayer_for_bushfires, to Dr Sarah Agnew for this lament: http://sarahtellsstories.blogspot.com/2020/01/choking.html, and to the Rev. Jennie Gordon for this blessing: https://greaterfarthantongueorpen.wordpress.com/about/

For my other blogs on the environment, see

https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/25/873/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/05/05/to-care-for-honour-and-respect-the-creation-we-need-to-stopadani-k/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-2/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-4/

My wife Elizabeth Raine has written some helpful reflections on environmental theology at

And God saw it was good…

and

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2012/06/musing-on-ecological-economy-why.html

and a series of blogs on living a life with low environmental impact, at

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2013/10/setting-sail-on-ss-low-impact.html

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2013/10/rubbish-to-left-of-me-and-rubbish-to.html

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2014/07/planet-at-risk-sorry-for-inconvenience.html

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2014/10/hygenically-sealed-in-plastic-for-your.html

and a lot more at https://elementcityblog.com (follow the links on the right of the page)

We wait, and hope, and grieve, anticipating …

A Prayer for the Fourth Sunday in Advent

as we sit and watch the flames and smoke

Hear our prayers, O God,

in this moment of waiting, anticipating,

waiting, and hoping,

as we prepare for the end of Advent

and the coming Christmas season.

We have seen the photos, Lord.

We have watched from afar,

horrified, terrified.

We have heard the accounts,

listened to the tales of loss and destruction,

and learnt the names of those who have died.

We have felt the heat,

searing heat, scorching heat;

we have watched the smoke,

insidious, permeating everything,

snaking its way into our region;

and we have become weary,

We have inhaled the smoke,

coughed and wheezed,

closed the windows and the doors,

waited for the change in wind direction.

Now it is inside … inside our homes,

inside our lives, inside our beings.

And still the photos, the images, come;

the searing flames, the plumes of smoke,

the walls of fire, the crowning fires;

the valiant citizens, hoses in hand,

the sobbing homeless, utterly devastated;

we have watched them, from afar,

thankfully, from afar.

And we wait, and ponder,

and hope, and grieve,

in this moment of waiting, anticipating,

waiting, and hoping,

as we prepare for the end of Advent

and the coming Christmas season.

For those with the skills and knowledge,

the energy and the capacity,

to stand and fight the fires,

we are grateful, immensely grateful.

Strengthen them, O God,

strengthen them through the food willingly provided,

the leave willingly offered,

through the places of rest and recovery

and the comfort of the chaplains on hand.

For those who have lost property and homes,

whose neighbours and animals have been evacuated,

whose memories and possessions are gone,

we are sorrowing.

Comfort them, O God,

comfort them through the presence of listening ears

as well as through the offers of tangible support.

For those who are mourning the deaths

of fathers, husbands, sons, friends,

we stand silent, in solidarity, in grief;

comfort them, we know not how,

comfort them through the skill of counsellors and chaplains,

comfort them through the support of friends and family.

For them, we grieve,

just as we grieve for the creatures of the bush lands

where fires have spread,

wreaking havoc, causing chaos,

destroying everything in their midst.

And the native animals die in the inferno

and the ashes spread over the sand of beaches

and the dams are emptied, the dust bowls grow larger,

the birds have no trees as their habitat is destroyed,

and we watch as the climate changes, the damage grows,

the omens line up, the signs become clearer.

And we wait, and ponder,

and hope, and grieve,

in this moment of waiting, anticipating,

waiting, and hoping,

as we prepare for the end of Advent

and the coming Christmas season.

We wonder about what will come next,

we worry about how close it will come to us,

we worry about what future we are leaving for others.

Give us a firm resolve, O God,

a resolve to live our lives in ways

that respect and value all of your creation.

Give to our leaders, O God, a clear understanding

of the critical moment of choice that is here:

a crisis point in our life as community,

a crisis where leadership is needed;

clear-headed, engaged and informed,

committed to charting a course

that will turn us away from having heads in the sand,

a course that will enable us

to reduce our carbon outputs,

foster renewable sources of energy,

and live as a country that reduces our impact year by year.

These are our prayers, O God,

in this moment of waiting,

anticipating,

waiting,

and hoping.

Hear our prayers, O God.

Amen.

Carols for the season

Last Sunday, Advent Three, in my congregation, we met to hear lessons, or readings, and to sing carols. Our eyes were firmly fixed on the joy of the child who is coming, who comes to us, each year, in the story of Christmas.

This Sunday, Advent Four, in that same congregation, we will hear more readings, telling the story that we recall, each Christmas, and sing more carols, focussed on the significance of those events long ago and their relevance for our lives today.

This is how I introduced the service:

Christmas Carols evoke a wonderful sense of tradition and memory. It is good to be doing that, at this time of the year. Yet it’s also important that we listen for the ways God is singing new songs, with new themes of hope and promise, with new melodies of inclusion, equality and welcome into our communities.

As you sing, you may notice that some of the carols may appear a little different from what you may be use to. The tunes will be familiar. And the words, in many ways, will also be familiar. But not all of them, not always familiar, not exactly as you know them. Some of the words will be different.

Now, this follows a long tradition, in writing words for hymns and carols, of varying the words, reshaping and reworking them. If you look up the Wikipedia article on Away in a manger, for instance, you will find that almost every line in the carol has recorded variants. The most significant are noted; for instance, “no crib for his bed”, or “No crib for a bed”; “the poor baby wakes”, or “The baby awakes“, and so on.

The last line of verse two appears in multiple published variants:

“And stay by my crib watching my lullaby” (Christian Cynosure, 1882)

“And stay by my crib to watch lullaby” (Seamen’s Magazine, 1883)

“And stay by my cradle to watch lullaby” (Murray, 1887)

“And watch by me always, and ever be nigh” (1890)

“And stay by my cradle till morning is nigh” (Herbert, 1891)

“And watch o’er my bed while in slumber I lie” (1893)

“And stay by my side until morning is nigh (1895)

So the carols that we sing today will follow a long tradition in hymnody, by which words are fluid, lyrics are flexible, and changes are allowable—the words of the carols are being reworked, rewritten, by people who are alive in our own time, today, making the message of the carol applicable to today and expressed in current language.

Our carols will follow the well-loved tunes, and will start out with words that are comfortably familiar. But as they proceed, the words will take some turns; so I invite you to pay attention, listen to the changes, reflect on the reshaping, and be prepared to encounter the familiar story in ways that refresh and renew your faith.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

(adapted by Sue Wickham)

O come, O come, Emmanuel,

and fill our lives, all dark and fear dispel,

as once an exiled Israel you found,

redeemed, restored and set on holy ground.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

shall come to us and in our hearts will dwell.

O come, O light of Christ, so bright and clear

and lift our spirits by your advent here.

In all who gather, show us your face,

that we may know the warmth of your embrace.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

shall come to us and in our hearts will dwell.

O come, O Wisdom, mind and heart divine,

help us restore a world we’ve let decline.

Enlighten us; your way we would know
and show us where new seeds of hope to sow.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

shall come to us and in our hearts will dwell.

O Advent God of hope, joy, love and peace,

in you we pray our sad divisions cease.

Bind us as one, a people of grace,

for at your table each one has a place.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

shall come to us and in our hearts will dwell.

 

Words © Sue Wickham 2010

https://pilgrimwr.unitingchurch.org.au/?p=925

The Angel Gabriel

(Words reworked by Sarah Agnew)

The angel Gabriel from heaven came,

surprising her by calling out her name:

‘Fear not,’ he said, ‘for God has seen and favours you,

You’re chosen for a blessing, Maria.

‘You will become a mother, Mary,

by Holy Spirit, with a child holy;

he is the one earth’s waiting for – the child of God,

O chosen for a blessing, Maria.’

‘But Gabriel how can this be, my friend?’

‘With God no thing’s impossible,’ he said.

‘Then let it be as you have said, I sing God’s praise.’

O, chosen for a blessing: Maria.

And so in Bethlehem she bore her boy

beneath a star as angels sang for joy:

Immanuel, our God with us, through Mary.

O chosen for a blessing, Maria.

words (c) Sarah Agnew 2019

music ‘Gabriel’s song’ Basque tune

http://praythestory.blogspot.com/2019/12/gabriel-and-maria.html

How ancient and lovely

Away in a manger with additional verses

by British writer Rebecca Dudley

(Shine on Star of Bethlehem, Christian Aid)

Away in a manger, no crib for his bed,

the little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head;

the stars in the bright sky look down where he lay,

the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.

How ancient and lovely, this news of a star,

a baby, a mother, the kings from afar.

Come close now, Lord Jesus, we ask you to stay

and show us your face in your people today.

What star shall we follow but one that leads here

to a baby born homeless and a family in fear?

What heaven shall we long for but one that starts there

for all the world’s children in your tender care?

We thank you, Lord Jesus, for coming to earth;

for the light in the darkness that shone at your birth,

for life in its fullness that you promise today,

and the hope of a baby asleep in the hay.

This version is published in Hunger for Justice (Christian Aid UK)

https://www.musicroom.com/product/kmp1400356/hunger-for-justice-organ.aspx

For some other versions of this carol, see https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/18/no-crying-he-makes-get-real-puhhh-leeeease/

Hark! the herald angels, combined with

More than a Dream (David MacGregor)

(Arranged by John Squires)

Hark! the herald angels sing,

glory to the new born king.

Peace on earth and mercy mild,

God and sinners reconciled.

Humankind called: “come together,

live in peace with one another.”

Glory, glory from the heights,

Peace on earth, goodwill has come.

Glory, glory from the heights,

Peace on earth has come to us.

Christ, by highest heaven adored:

Christ, the everlasting Lord;

called to bring your peaceful kingdom,

lion rests besides the lamb.

Justice for the poor and needy

come to us, a child will lead us:

Glory, glory from the heights,

Peace on earth, goodwill has come.

Glory, glory from the heights,

Peace on earth has come to us.

Hail! the heaven-born prince of peace!

Hail! the Son of Righteousness!

Jesus, Saviour, born among us,

bring your peace anew to us.

Hearts of love reach out to all,

for the world, in your great love.

Glory, glory from the heights,

Peace on earth, goodwill has come.

Glory, glory from the heights,

Peace on earth has come to us.

Adapted from a song, More Than Dream (peace be our living), by David MacGregor © 2015 Willow Publishing

https://dmacgreg1.wordpress.com/2015/12/05/peace-on-earth-mercy-mild/

Combined with words from Hark! the herald angels sing, with the permission of David MacGregor (but not Charles Wesley!)

No crying he makes? Get real, puhhh-leeeease!

The traditional words of the much-sung carol, Away in a Manger, offer a heavily romanticised, sickly-sweet, unrealistic take on the infant Jesus.

Yes, to be sure, newborn babies do look sweet and innocent. But not quite as clean, not quite as picture-perfect, as the many cards and carols present the newborn Jesus. And no crying? Not ever? That does not ring true, surely!

Indeed, one could argue that the way that Jesus is depicted in this carol flies in the face of the very claim that the carol, and the story to which it refers, seeks to make: that, in Jesus, God entered human life, became one of us, was incarnate, enfleshed, fully and completely human. After all, an infant who never cries must surely not be human, we would think?

And yet, still the carol features in Christian worship services as well as shopping mall Muzak and perpetual Christmas movie reruns on tv.

In response to these beloved words, a number of contemporary lyricists have offered rewrites of this classic carol (it is only around 130 years old, if the truth be known).

Each of these versions reworks the carol so that the realism of the day is evident — especially highlighting the plight of the family as refugees, seeking safety in another country. That part of the story resonates so strongly with our contemporary world: the number of refugees across the globe is the largest it has ever been, and it continues to grow as warfare afflicts country after country.

How ancient and lovely. Words by British writer Rebecca Dudley (Shine on Star of Bethlehem, Christian Aid)

How ancient and lovely, this news of a star,

a baby, a mother, the kings from afar.

Come close now, Lord Jesus, we ask you to stay

and show us your face in your people today.

What star shall we follow but one that leads here

to a baby born homeless and a family in fear?

What heaven shall we long for but one that starts there

for all the world’s children in your tender care?

We thank you, Lord Jesus, for coming to earth;

for the light in the darkness that shone at your birth,

for life in its fullness that you promise today,

and the hope of a baby asleep in the hay.

Away and in danger. Words by Shirley Erena Murray from Aeotearoa New Zealand

Away and in danger, no hope of a bed,

the refugee children, no tears left to shed

look up at the night sky for someone to know

that refugee children have no place to go.

The babies are crying, their hunger awakes,

the boat is too loaded, it shudders and breaks;

humanity’s wreckage is thrown out to die,

the refugee children will never know why.

Come close, little children, we hold out our hand

in rescue and welcome to shores of our land –

in *aroha, touching your fear and your pain,

with dreams for your future when peace comes again.

*aroha is Maori for ‘warm embracing love’

alternative line “in touching, in healing’

http://www.hopepublishing.com/html/main.isx?sitesec=40.2.1.0&hymnID=5787

If I saw my toddler. Words by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette of the USA

If I saw my toddler with hands in the air

In fearful surrender to someone, somewhere,

I’d search for a people in some other place

Who practiced their preaching and showed love and grace.

If I had to flee from the madness of war—

From terror and violence and things I abhor,

I’d search for a nation with arms open wide,

With safety and beauty and friendships inside.

Be with me, Lord Jesus, as I seek to be

A friend to the stranger and poor refugee,

And as I remember you once had no bed,

May I give up fear and give welcome instead.

This hymn was inspired by a photo of a small Syrian child,

hands in the air, fearing that a camera lens was a gun:

www.snopes.com/syria-refugee-child-surrender/

Biblical References: Leviticus 19:34; Matthew 25:35; Luke 2:7; Hebrews 13:1; 1 John 4:18

Tune: James Ramsey Murray, 1887 (“Away in a Manger”)  

Text: Copyright © 2015 by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette. All rights reserved.

http://www.carolynshymns.com/if_i_saw_my_toddler.html

Millennium Carol. Words by Jan Chamberlin of Aeotearoa New Zealand

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,

A long ago baby was born in a shed.

What possible meaning could this have for me,

A child of computers and technology.

The stars in the bright sky look down on me now,

But Christmas in these days lacks something, somehow,

There’s tinsel and turkey and gifts by the score,

Yet I am left feeling that there should be more.

Wise men with research grants can do awesome deeds,

But we are neglectful of our neighbors needs

For love and for caring, a Christ-child reborn:

God’s hand touching our hand on each Christmas morning.

The old manger story, with shepherds and kings:

Amazing how simple the message it brings.

Regardless of science or surfing the net:

God still sends us Jesus, and he loves us yet.

Words by Jan Chamberlin, from With Heart and Voice

http://www.methodist.org.nz/files/docs/alec/with%20heart%20and%20voice/1%20millennium%20carol.pdf

Preparing prayerfully for Christmas celebrations

It is the custom, in the Congregation where I am serving this year, for a member of the Congregation to lead the prayers of the people each Sunday. Yesterday, Robyn Robinson led us in prayers which, with her permission, I post here: assisting us to prepare prayerfully for Christmas celebrations.

Loving God, we bring to you the prayers of the people: your people, greatly loved and willingly sought.

As Christmas approaches, we are reminded of the amazing gift you have given us, for as a God who knew no boundaries, you were willing to limit yourself to the constraints and boundaries of being human.

You came to your people as one of us: Emmanuel, God with us.

The angels sang of peace and goodwill on earth; and yet, here, so many years later, we are still struggling with terrible tragedies and inexplicable events.

We think of the continuing battle against the bushfires, and pray for rain.

We think of the civil unrest in countries overseas, and pray for calm.

We think of the natural disaster in New Zealand, and pray for comfort.

We think of the continuing violence in our homes, work places, and cities, and pray for peace.

Compassionate God, we pray for all those who are suffering, and ask for your comfort and peace to surround them.

There was no room at the inn for the child of Mary and Joseph, a king born in lowly surroundings; we pray for all of royal birth, for all of humble origins, for all who find no room or acceptance in society today.

We pray for those who have no room in their life for you; for those who publicly mock or ridicule you, and for all who suffer in your name.

May your love grow more and more in us, as we become more and more like Jesus, living out our faith in ways that will change the world.

We pray that we might see beyond the decorations and the holidays, the food and the presents, to the coming of the Christ child and the love, joy, hope and peace that comes with your presence.

May we all see beyond the snap of a cracker, filled with a few trinkets and a party hat, to see a richly fulfilling life as a child of God.

Help us to let go of our personal kingdoms of selfishness and greed, and, like Mary, bring Jesus to the world through everything we say and do. Amen.